Tennis: Wilander in full flow: A three-time champion is back on the upswing down under

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The Independent Online
OLD Mats River, he just keeps rolling along. M A O Wilander, startlingly, is flowing again in a tennis tournament that he used to own, the Australian Open.

'Yes, I guess I'm surprised to be in the fourth round,' he says, smiling, shaking his heavily maned head. 'But I can feel that I'm more serious than I was at the US Open.'

It must be something about Aussie beer, southern hemisphere sun or the polluted Yarra, coursing alongside Flinders Park, that brings out the champion in Wilander. His 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Alex Mronz yesterday gave him an eight-for-eight record in such full-distance encounters in Melbourne, where the 1983, 1984 and 1988 titles were his. Since the last, he has drifted from the scene to live in retirement in Connecticut, resurfacing sporadically.

Mronz, a German ranked 143rd and best known as a bygone boyfriend of Steffi Graf, seemed caught in a time warp along with Wilander. A tall, handsome citizen of Cologne wearing stark white shorts and shirt as though it were the Fifties, he was in control of the 4hr 18min match for a long time. But then Old Mats River began to rise; he started to run, retrieve and bash as though he were back in the Eighties.

'I was grinding it out again, and it was fun,' says Wilander, who will take his shot at the quarter-finals against MaliVai Washington. Washington subdued Alex Antonitsch, 4-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, 6-3. 'I didn't think I could keep my concentration for so long any more.'

Wilander is no ancient. He'll be 30 in August, four years younger than Ivan Lendl, who opposes the world No 1, Pete Sampras, today. He has made his occasional reappearances seem something of a lark, saying at Flushing Meadow: 'I'll play as long as it's driving distance from my home.'

Wilander, ranked 322nd and into Flinders through the back door on a wild card, concedes that he does get pumped for the major occasions. 'I had a good US Open (he made the third round) expecting nothing. Then I lost five first-round matches before this.'

He refuses to call this passage a genuine comeback, a bid to return to No 1 which he held briefly after winning the Australian, French and US in 1988. 'I don't think I can improve much, but I'm going to play about 15 tournaments this year. There's a feeling from winning a match like this that I can't get from anything else.'

It was a good day for Swedes. Stefan Edberg, who won his first major title in Melbourne, the 1985 championship over Wilander, and repeated it in 1987 over Pat Cash (on grass at Kooyong), made Fabrice Santoro wish he had a third hand. One of those two-fisted both-ways freaks, Santoro found that wasn't enough, and lost 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. 'That's as well as I ever played here,' Edberg said. A lesser light, Lars Jonsson, punched out the 14th seed, Karol Novacek. Ranked 134th, the willowy Jonsson moved too well for the Czech, winning 6-1, 7-5, 7-5.

Two of the Maleeva sisters moved into the fourth round. Manuela, seeded eighth and saying this is her swansong, battered an Indonesian, Romana Tedjakusuma, 6-0, 6-1. Maggie, 14th, put away a Kazakstani, Elena Likhotseva, 6-4, 6-2.

Mary Pierce (6-3, 6-2 over Sabine Appelmans) and Gabriela Sabatini (6-2, 6-1 over Linda Ferrando) have moved to a rematch of last year's thriller in which Sabatini escaped from a match point against her. As Sabatini struggles to recover the form of yesteryear, she might ask Old Mats for pointers.

(Photograph omitted)

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